Time to do a bit of thinking today, so I headed down to Holy Trinity Brompton (the Anglican church in West London that is ‘home’ to the Alpha Course) for day one of a two day conference entitled ‘Seek the welfare of the city’. The subtitle (it seems that conferences, like academic papers, have to have suitably long and weighty subtitles) pretty much describes the theme of the conference: ‘hopeful imagination and prophetic practice in urban mission and ministry’.
Day one focused on practice – day two will move on to theory – so there were lots of stories, some of which were quite inspirational. The day started on a high note with a keynote address by Bishop Doug Miles, senior pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church, Baltimore. The bishop made several points which chimed with me, the two most challenging of which were:
- The church has to be a relational community. Acts 1:6-11 speaks of the disciples meeting from house to house. Our congregations tend to be task-oriented rather than relational – we don’t know the stories of the people sitting in the next pew. We therefore need to create space to hear one another’s stories.
- The church has to be a proclaiming community. There are many things we do – serving, teaching, fellowshipping – which other organisations do as well or better. But the task of proclaiming the gospel belongs uniquely to the church.
The rest of the day was given over to three panels, each addressing a particular topic with two illustrative case studies. These were:
- Christian social enterprise
- Missional church in practice
- Urban spirituality and discipleship
As I said above, the case studies were inspirational and drawn from a variety of church traditions. The overviews that preceded the case studies were more patchy. By the end of the day there were a number of questions raised in my mind:
- There was generally a need for more critical, prophetic thinking (a point made by Bishop Miles right at the end), particularly on the subject of social enterprise.
- The overview of ‘missional church’ was over-technical (as soon as I hear words such as ‘explicate’ I tend to turn off), and I thought, a missed opportunity. Although I am familiar with books such as ‘Mission Shaped Church’ and ‘Liquid Church’ I was not aware of the history, development and critique of the ‘missional church’ movement. Example: “for whilst missional churches have attempted to take new and progressive forms, they have largely remained captive to the socio-logic (sic) and nature of capitalist markets”. I think I know what the speaker was getting at, but this could have been seriously unpacked.
- Apart from Bishop Miles, all the speakers were white. (And indeed there were few black attendees). For me the multicultural reality of our situation was not sufficiently acknowledged, nor the role of the black-led churches and their distinctive contribution to urban church life.
- I found myself disagreeing with the conclusions of the panel on urban spirituality. At the end of the presentations, the question was posed (quite rightly) whether the spirituality and worship that had been described was particularly urban or whether the same could have been equally said of spirituality in a rural context. The panel members struggled to find much to say that was distinctive of urban spirituality. I found this troubling; my experience is that there is a way our inner city congregations go about prayer, worship and
theological discoursetalking about faith (sorry, it’s catching) which is distinctive. But this, I think, is the subject for another post.
All in all an interesting day. The Alpha Course-branded sandwiches were tasty, the seats were a bit hard, and it was fun spotting the Anglican curates there as part of their post-ordination training, some sporting some very wide clerical collars. It used to be said ‘the higher the collar, the lower the churchmanship’, but in a day when most low church clergy wear no collar at all I wonder if this is still true?
Tomorrow we have contributions from Jim Wallis, David Ford, Alister McGrath and Luke Bretherton. Should be good.